This is one reason why Palmyra matters

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When the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt was just beginning his third season of digging at Palmyra in 1928, someone offered to sell him this stunning portrait of a woman - and, in accordance with the practices of the time, he bought it on the spot. The bust - or more correctly, half figure - was shipped to Copenhagen where it still graces the New Carlsberg Glyptotek, one of the sponsors of his excavation.  

The most beautiful female bust I have seen thus far, Ingholt said, and, short of a beauty contest between at least six of my favourite female contenders, that probably still remains true. 

The portrait shows a woman who was both wealthy and fashionable: look at the gold-coloured paint which enriches her exuberant jewellery -- imitating golden jewels she must have owned in reality --  and the deep red embroidered sleeves and ruddy dangling beads, red lips, and rouged cheeks (the reds, alas, more visible when she was found than now*). An altogether elegant woman. More the pity that there was no precise provenance: no one knew where the bust was found, nor when the woman had lived....

Until now!

Harald Ingholt's unpublished diary held the secret, only recently teased out thanks to the Palmyra Portrait Project.  One of the goals of the PPP (headed by Rubina Raja of Aarhus University and Andreas J.M. Kropp at Nottingham University) is the transcription, translation and digitalization of all of Ingholt's archives, including his excavation diaries. Thanks to their careful work, we now can place the Beauty in her proper tomb: she comes from the underground house-tomb known as Qasr Abjad, 'White Castle', in the Western necropolis. Sculptural finds from this relatively modest sepulchre date to the late 2nd century CE so the woman whose portrait is our Beauty probably ended her life in the years between 190 and 210 CE.

All this and more in Aarhus (Denmark)

The Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus is highlighting Harold Ingholt's work in its thought-provoking show, Harold Ingholt and Palmyra(until 13 September). The exhibition is based on research carried out within the framework of the Palmyra Portrait Project: their scrutiny of Ingholt's dig diaries has brought to light previously unknown locations of tomb sculpture and new information on his excavations in the city. With his descriptions, sketches and reports, for example, it has been possible to identify some graves whose plans have never been published.




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